Page Turner: Six Questions on Men and Feminism for Author Shira Tarrant
We all know that feminist guy, right? The one who successfully sideswiped years of Neanderthal behavior to forge a path to guyville uniquely his own. And I’m not talking about the guy who wears a “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt and calls it a day. I’m talking about the men in our lives who acknowledge the feminine within them every day, without shame, and who stand up for women’s rights as easily as they stand up to
pee greet you. These are men who understand the value of feminism and of doing feminism to better girls’ and women’s lives in a culture as waywardly misogynistic as ours can be.
Author and women’s studies professor Shira Tarrant, Ph.D., has written a book to celebrate that guy and to indoctrinate all men into understanding why feminism is not just about girls and women. Her book, Men and Feminism, is part of Seal Press’ academic Seal Studies series and covers not only the history of men and feminism, but gender theory, constructing masculinity, masculine privilege, and how all men can—and why they must—get involved in feminist action.
Page Turner interviewed Tarrant about what led her to become an expert in masculinities, why feminism is relevant to men, speaking plainly about men’s violence, and what men lose in pursuit of the “hypermasculine ideal.”
Page Turner: You’re an expert in masculinities, and in addition to writing Men and Feminism, you edited the anthology Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex, and Power. What personally prompted you to, as you write, “think more courageously and deeply about masculinity”?
Shira Tarrant: I felt like it was important to use language that brings intellect, conviction, and heart to writing about masculinity and progressive change. Gender analysis is analytical and political, but it’s also deeply personal. It takes bravery to speak up and to shake the dust off aspects of everyday life that we sometimes take for granted. I wanted to invite readers to join me in this challenge.
The other reason I approached this subject and suggested that we think more courageously and deeply about masculinity is this: We’re far more comfortable talking about women surviving sexual assault, adding public lighting for safety, or how women ought to earn fair wages. It’s a whole different thing to shift the focus to men and masculinities. It’s one thing to say, “women shouldn’t be raped.” It’s a different challenge to say, “men need to stop raping.”
Drawing attention to men and masculinities in this way means calling out men—and the culture at large. We can’t avoid it, even while men can be our allies. None of us are above critique, and we’re all in this messy struggle together. But it’s a struggle that can threaten the power structure, and we need to be courageous about this and be willing to go deep.
PT: Men and Feminism arises from what you call a common question, which is “why is feminism relevant to men?” Does it surprise you that our culture is still at a relatively base point in understanding that movements for gender equality ultimately benefit us all? And, since you’ve essentially written a book on the topic, what’s your short answer to this question?
Shira Tarrant: Yeah, sometimes I’m really surprised, because it seems so obvious. The more everyone thrives, the more we all benefit.
There may be a time and place for single-sex organizing, but feminism is relevant to men, and there are lots of ways men can get involved in feminist issues. There’s definitely a place for men in advocating for reproductive freedom, ending male violence, promoting pay equity, preventing sexism—the list goes on.
Feminism is also relevant to men, and genderqueers and transgender folk, because feminism is an inclusive social movement. The way I put it in Men and Feminism is that feminism is about taking action in the interest of women and also on behalf of all groups that are affected by hegemonic power.
Thinking of feminism as a girls-only club would make feminism a political movement with inclusive goals but with exclusive membership. That doesn’t even make logical sense! Some guys might think they’re not welcome, or it simply might not occur to them to get involved, but there’s plenty of work to be done. By analogy, for men to think that feminism is for someone else is like white people thinking that racism isn’t relevant to them. Of course it is! And we need all hands on deck to make serious change.
Really shifting our cultural politics and our unspoken systems of advantage means that people with unearned privilege and power must be willing to examine our own roles in perpetuating the problems. We also must be willing to create solutions. The burden of this work can’t fall entirely on those who already carry the burden of the problem.
PT: You quote many scholars on male feminism, including John Stoltenberg, who wrote: “As I watched guys trying to prove their fantasy of manhood—by doing dirt to women, making fun of queers, putting down people of other religions and races—I realized they were doing something really negative to me, too, because their fear and hatred of everything ‘nonmanly’ was killing off something in me that I valued.”
You’ve interviewed countless men and women across gender, sexuality, race, and religious lines about hypermasculinity. What’s being killed off inside men in pursuit of this so-called hypermasculine ideal?”
ST: Their full range of humanity. Hypermasculinity is only one way of doing manhood. And it’s limiting. It wrings so much of the potential for relating with others and for self-understanding. Besides, posing like a hard-ass has gotta get exhausting!
PT: In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Women at Risk,” columnist Bob Herbert wrote: “We have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that the barbaric treatment of women and girls has come to be more or less expected. ... Life in the United States is mind-bogglingly violent. But we should take particular notice of the staggering amounts of violence brought down on the nation’s women and girls each and every day for no other reason than who they are. They are attacked because they are female.”
What did you think of the column, especially as it appears in a mainstream press? This passage, at least, reminds me of the “linguistic shape-shifting” you write about in Men and Feminism, where people obscure men’s responsibility for violence against women from their language.
ST: There was a lot of discussion in the feminist blogosphere about Herbert’s piece. The conversations I read were by female feminists. On the one hand, there was a sense that women had been calling out misogyny for years, decades, centuries. And then along comes a man who has column space and huge visibility through the New York Times. Some women were pissed, because it seemed that the media listened more when a man talked about issues that women have been vocalizing for so long.
I’ve said exactly what Herbert wrote in his column—that if any other single group of people were being systematically assaulted there would be mass public outrage. The problem is that violence against women is so often invisible. Or it happens so often it just seems normal. Violence against women is even fodder for entertainment. The story plots of entire TV shows and films revolve around violence against women. Can you imagine seeing similar story lines—on a regular basis—that revolved around systematic violence or sexual assault against another single group of people? People would be speaking out, boycotting, demanding change.
Another argument that emerged right after Herbert’s column was published was that if people pay more attention to the issues because a man is saying it, then fine! The point is to end male violence against women.
Both perspectives have merit. Women have been talking about rape, assault, and violence for a very long time. But as I say in my books, it’s not women’s job to fix these problems alone. We need everyone on board. That makes sense strategically. There’s strength in numbers. But this also a moral, ethical, and logical issue. We need men involved in violence prevention. The best way to solve the problem of men’s violence against women is for men to not be violent in the first place. So doesn’t it make sense that men need to be involved and talking with each other?
There’s a huge problem in news reporting and media, more generally, where women are identified as victims, but men are remain invisible—as men—when they are the perpetrators. Jackson Katz talks about this a lot in his book Macho Paradox. There’s a huge difference between saying “a woman was raped” and saying “a man raped a woman.” The latter sentence is still very challenging for us to hear, because it calls out the person who assaults and removes women from the victim role.
PT: Who or what are the best pop culture models of positive masculinity that you know of today? And who are the worst offenders (or who’s just mixing it up quite radically or frustratingly)?
ST: Would somebody please take the music from Eminem’s “Crack A Bottle” and give it new lyrics? I just thought I’d put that request out there.
I keep plugging Rafael Casal, because I think he’s doing amazing, creative, powerful stuff. He’s a slam poet who takes on politics and power, masculinity and gender relations. I hope he gets big, Big, BIG!
Who else? Hmmm . . . that’s a tough one! My friends know that I’m absolutely fascinated by Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold character on Entourage. I have feminist friends who won’t even watch the show. There’s something so intriguing about Piven’s role. Maybe it’s the massively rigid ego boundaries. But you know exactly what his character’s about. There’s no guessing, no duplicity, no fancy feminist footwork acting as cover-up for more roguish behavior. I find that wildly refreshing. I know I’ll take heat for saying that. I already do.
PT: What should we teach our sons—and all children—about what it means to be a man, and how to become a man who is different from the dominant hypermasculine model without fear or shame?
ST: I’m big on child-centered ways of being with kids. What I mean by that is being respectful, listening, acknowledging children’s feelings and desires, respecting their autonomy, their creativity, their right to say no, and their right to say yes. When we do that, we foster models of being in the world that enables kids to grow up feeling entitled to be who they are and to love and care about themselves and others.
This also means teaching kids the vocabulary of emotion, so they can express themselves. A lot of dominant hypermasculinity involves limiting the options that boys and men have for expressing themselves. There might be fear or shame in rejecting domininant, hypermasculine models of boyhood and manhood. But what a difference that would make to have the ability to identify that discomfort and the language to express it!
What I’m suggesting brings us back to your first question. Looking closely and compassionately at how we relate to kids, how we respect them, and what we teach them requires that we think courageously and deeply about all sorts of assumptions we have about gender, power, and authority.
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